A Holiday Gift for The Finger Lakes Region

Owasco Lake

The Nature Conservancy is awarded $1.1 million in state funds to improve Owasco Lake’s water quality

NY REDC grant will help safeguard drinking water for residents of Cayuga County

The Nature Conservancy is celebrating an exciting investment in the Finger Lakes region—a $1.1 million grant to protect Owasco Lake and clean drinking water in Central New York. The grant, which needs to be supplemented by private donations, will fund a project to protect and restore lands in the watershed that can filter out nutrients before they reach the lake, helping to solve a critical problem: the proliferation of toxic blue-green algae blooms in an ecologically and economically important lake.

Last week, Governor Cuomo announced more than $14 million in awards from the New York Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) to protect the sources of New Yorkers’ drinking water. The Nature Conservancy was among the recipients, receiving $1.1 million to identify, protect and restore parcels of land in the Owasco Lake watershed and make a lasting difference in the lake’s water quality.

“Healthy fresh water systems are a critical component of people’s quality of life in the Finger Lakes region and a major driver of New York’s economy,” says Jim Howe, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Central & Western New York Chapter. “We’re grateful that Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have made historic investments in New York’s environment, including funding for both infrastructure and protecting source waters. I can’t imagine a better holiday gift for Owasco Lake and the communities that depend on it.”

Owasco Lake provides public drinking water to about 44,000 residents of Cayuga County, but has experienced dramatic increases in toxic blue green algae, with blooms increasing in duration from one week in 2012 to six weeks in 2016. The toxicity of these blooms has also increased from concentrations of 165 micrograms per liter in 2014 to 3,150 micrograms per liter in 2016.Click here to read the 2016 Water Quality Report.

In addition to providing clean drinking water, Owasco Lake is an important economic driver for the region. Tourists spent over $97 million in Cayuga County last year, generating over $12 million in state and local taxes. A decrease in tourism due to poor water quality could have a serious impact on the community’s economy.

Blue-green algae blooms, which are linked to liver and nervous system diseases, have threatened the health and safety of Owasco Lake for years. In 2016, the public water system for the city of Auburn and town of Owasco became the first in the state to test positive for blue-green algae toxins. Although the levels were determined to be safe enough for drinking, the occurrence heightened concern by local officials, businesses and residents. In 2017, toxic blue-green algae blooms occurred throughout the Finger Lakes as heavy rains washed phosphorous and nitrogen from lawns, golf courses, farms, septic systems and water treatment facilities into water bodies throughout the region.

“The drivers of toxic algal blooms are diverse,” says Darran Crabtree, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Central and Western New York Chapter and the project’s lead scientist. “Changing climate leading to increased rainfall and prolonged, hot periods during the summer are beyond local control, but we can maintain and enhance the natural areas along stream and rivers that help filter sediments and nutrients before they reach waterways.” Crabtree says the Conservancy will use the grant funding to work with partners to identify, protect and restore lands that provide this natural benefit.

The Nature Conservancy is now raising $375,000 as a match requirement from New York State as well as additional funds for the project’s implementation phase. To make a gift, please contact Jan Miller at jan_miller@tnc.org or (585) 546-8030 x7928.


The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy at www.nature.org.